Two of the best known writers of the 1950s in the United States were Whitaker Chambers, the exposer of Communist Party/Soviet penetration of the American administration and author of Witness; and Ayn Rand who wrote the bestselling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Both remain betes noir of the left, but they had little in common, it seems, other than they disliked, and were in turn hated by, more or less the same people.
Chambers wrote a devastating review of Atlas Shrugged for William F. Buckley’s National Review in December 1957, Rand’s reaction to which Buckley amusingly recounted many years later (she forbade anyone to mention it in her presence). What both Chambers and Buckley as conservatives found pretty much repellent in Rand’s libertarianism was what Buckley termed a “scorn for charity,” and the construction of a system which Chambers likened to Nietzschean nihilism.
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That system which Rand attempted to articulate as Objectivism is perhaps unfairly seen as representative of libertarianism, although the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, later became a bit of an icon for the Tea Party. At its most simplistic it can seem a rather shallow and amoral celebration of an extreme individualism in which success or failure is solely measured by how much money a person has.
Some American libertarians of Rand’s school certainly extend this ultra-individualism to their support for abortion, pornography, mass immigration, the legalisation of drugs and so on. While they may argue that their motivations are diametrically opposed to those on the left who support all of those things, the consequence is the same. In any event, a completely stateless free-market, or conversely, an anarchic egalitarianism are both fantasies.
What Russell Kirk said of American libertarians could equally be applied to the modern left, which promotes a similar infantile “my choicism” – which of course on the part of the left they require to be imposed by official and mob censorship. Both varieties of libertarianism “seek an abstract Liberty that has never existed in any civilization,” he observed.
Rand herself despite having escaped the atheistic totalitarianism of the Bolsheviks was disdainful of religion which she and Nietzsche and other ideologists of egoism regard as a sentimental barrier in the way of the strong. She once confronted Buckley at a party with the accusation that he was “too intelligent to believe in Gott.” She supported abortion up to full term and opposed Ronald Reagan almost solely on the basis of his pro life views.
At the risk of turning this into an ad hominem attack on Rand, it is worth contrasting her world view with what might be considered a more traditional conservatism. Libertarianism, of whatever variety, is based on a false understanding of human nature. Left libertarians, the anarchists, believe that once all authority is destroyed that people will voluntarily agree to become part of a collective in which violence, exploitation and all the other nasty things that people do are eradicated. And everyone can do whatever they want.
Right libertarians believe that the destruction of all authority and institutions external to what is necessary for commerce will lead to individuals dealing with one another on the basis of economic exchange out of which there will emerge an “extended order” in which the pursuit of those interests guarantees that we do not bother one another too much. Another way in which everyone can do whatever they please really.
Any sober reading of history would tend to indicate that anarchy driven by ostensibly collectivist equalitarian motives, or alternatively a war of all against all for selfish purposes, leads to barbarism. The European order of the middle ages was crucial to not only preserving what there was of a Christian civilization in which people could not just do as they pleased, either as powerful individuals or as part of a gang, but in laying the basis for the later development of that civilization to what we have today. It was the endurance of that tradition, including among the pre-Woke non-Marxist left, which saved it again from totalitarianism in the last century.
Which relates to another commonality between libertarianism and leftist revolutionism; the belief in “creative destruction.” Karl Marx and Gordon Gekko of Wall Street might appear on the face of it to have little in common. What they do share is the belief that capitalism at its rawest is a wrecking ball that creates clarity.
For Gekko and the 1980s traders he was meant to epitomise, that meant destroying whatever stood in the way of their boosting their bank balance. For Marx, who positively rejoiced in the destruction of all that was old, including the sentimental “crap” of family and home place and faith including his own Jewish heritage, unbridled capitalism was the clearing house which would create the despairing wretched on which he and the other declassé bourgeois malcontents would build their dystopian future.
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street and its 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps both directed by Oliver Stone.
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Just as today, for every spiv that sees in an apartment block of overpriced eggboxes the zeros being added to their corporate and personal worth, so there is some aspirant Lenin quite often lumbered with a similar Oedipal bourgeois psyche as Karl and Vladimir themselves, who sees in the same structures the incubators of black and white uniting and fighting and it all coming out roses in the end. Preferably with the left as the Mary Poppins to ensure that everyone is nice.
Roger Scruton was another traditional conservative who scorned the Essex Man loadsamoney ethic that seemed to some to define what was known as Thatcherism. A crude definition, but nevertheless. Scruton’s main argument against libertarianism as he understood it was its lack of comprehension that no person is an island, entire of themselves. What each person does has an impact on others, even at the most basic level.
It is on that foundation civilization is based. The notion that someone can do as they please in pursuit of their personal pleasure or wealth is just as obnoxious as the notion that the state ought to have as complete control as possible over what people as individuals do. It is out of the conflict between those polarities, and the compromises facilitated by the accommodation of interests that we have any sort of order.
At the very basis of society, there needs to be a consensus that the state does have the right to intervene to protect that order. Whether that is from those who would overthrow it so as to impose a state tyranny, or those who would use their wealth in order to destroy the social fabric.
State and Capitalist Monopolies
Economic freedom is fundamental to that, as apart altogether from the proven inefficiencies of socialism in even the most basic provisions, the more diverse and independent interests there are in a society the healthier it tends to be. The measure of a healthy free enterprise economy is not the domination of huge corporations, but the wide dispersal of property, including the ownership of a person’s home.
It is ironic that the libertarian Cato Institute has welcomed the decline of the traditional American retail sector during the Covid crisis to the benefit of the huge online retailers whose only ostensible ideology apart from making vast amounts of money, is to tick all sorts of Woke boxes and fund much of the American left. It was Trump’s championing of smaller businesses that earned him the hatred of many on that side of the Republican Party as anything else.
Economic freedom cannot be simply reduced to people who have wealth doing whatever they feel is necessary in order to make more money, or to keep what they have. Which is one of the flaws that Chambers, as a former Marxist familiar with simplistic formulas, recognised in Rand. She affected to reject the state, but her alternative was what he termed a technocratic elite that would ensure that nothing interfered with the making of money by those who already had it.
Which was curiously prescient in a way of Chambers as such a technocracy would seem to be the objective of the sort of Woke billionaires like Schwab and the other elites who run the World Economic Forum. The fact that they share so much common ground with the totalitarian collectivists in power in Beijing and those aspirant totalitarians who aspire to be in political power here, is wake up and smell the coffee time.
That there is even a debate among libertarians regarding China is indicative of a certain moral failing. The mantra has long been that the more China embraces no holds barred capitalism, the more it will become like America and western Europe. This is clearly not the case.
Capital, both private and state, in China, operates like a Dickensian mill owner on speed. There are no unions, no independent legal recourse, no media highlighting any of this, and so villages are destroyed to make way for new cities and industries, and the entire population is condemned to virtual economic slavery. It is no wonder that some of our own socially destructive “entrepreneurs” have been drawn to this “opportunity” like bees to honey.
Our housing situation
The same applies to housing here. Those whose mantra is that it doesn’t matter who owns or what type of accommodation is built, could not care less about the impact it will have on the type of country we will live in. It also creates a false polarity on the left, which supports all the same drivers of the current housing malaise, and whose only alternative is much the same model of high density rentals, except that the rentier will be the state rather than mostly overseas funds.
When questioned about the failure of the state to stop tax incentives for such developers, Varadkar responded with a good deal of truth: “There are housing developments in this city. mainly apartment blocks, mainly high density developments that would not have been built if they hadn’t got finance from investment funds.”
None of the opposition parties in Leinster House either dissent from the “vision” that underlines any of that demand, nor questions the drivers; which are to a large extent a growing immigrant workforce added to considerable illegal immigration. Nor have they an alternative with regards to how the growth in population that is taking place on that basis can be housed. The only difference is in how quickly it can be done, and whether the state or the investment funds be the main agency to replace family home ownership.
If you support what for this country is projected to be a vast increase in population, largely driven by inward migration and an increasing non-national workforce, then there is no way to avoid all of the consequences this will have.
To return to Wall Street. It is ironic that despite Oliver Stone’s presumed ideological purpose and indeed the politics of the elder Sheen, that the good guys are not only the airline workers who want to preserve their jobs, but the company which steps in in place of Gekko and keeps the whole thing operating as it was.
That is how western societies have survived until now, in the face of near-defeat by the totalitarians of the left and right in the last century. Now it faces a strange new threat in which left totalitarianism as represented by both China and much of the left around the world and technocratic corporatism seem to share a common view of the future.
Globalization is new Utopianism
Globalisation under technocratic control protects corporate wealth and enhances the conditions under which capital and labour are deployed with rapidly decreasing say on the part of local populations. On the left this can be justified on the basis of strengthening “social capital” through increasing the amount of control that is exercised by the state on anything that stands in the way of the “diversity” and “freedom of movement” which is essential to corporate globalization.
Apart from its lunatic fringe, no serious left party any longer advocates socialism as in what it means – the collective (read state) control of the economy. That is a beaten flush. So the political question is not about the nature of the economy – and quite clearly the left as evidenced by the Covid crisis favours big capital over small which they regard in any event as an impediment to their own ambitions – but about who acts as the mediator between corporate capital and an increasingly dependent and powerless citizen.
So they have settled for a different scenario in which they will accommodate themselves to global corporatism as long as global corporatism shares with it the belief in the need for greatly enhanced restrictions on the population. Their own identarian ideology is a perfect fit for the interests of globalised capital. The Covid crisis has been regarded by both not only as a great opportunity to put those restrictions to the test, but to theorise on their basis for what the world ought to look like post Covid.
In his book The New Class, the dissident Yugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas who was in effect Tito’s deputy, described the power of the new elite as being based on the effective control of the means of production, even though none of it was legally deeded to any of the bureaucracy. The Chinese Communist Party after Mao came to the conclusion that control rather than ownership was the key to power. Rapacious capital was okay once they as a class wet their beaks, but more importantly controlled its impact on the rest of society. A manifestation perhaps of Rand’s technocratic elite that she obviously never envisaged.
The corporate elite may affect to be in favour of free trade, but they are the pirates who have won the battle and are now intent on pulling up the rope ladder. Their vision of the world has no place for genuine free enterprise. And their creative destruction aligns with that of the left in seeking to destroy all tradition and all customs that stand in the way of having a compliant rootless population.
Out of all that – the Fourth Industrial Revolution as imagined by the World Economic Forum – will come “greater social cohesion.” It may well, because as one of Dostoyevsky’s Russian anarchist anti-heroes Shigaliev said, from the promise of unlimited freedom will come unlimited despotism, and “the great thing about it is equality. Slaves are bound to be equal. There has never been either freedom or equality without despotism.” Dostoyevsky was predicting what happened in Russia 50 years later.
Like Chambers, it is difficult to be optimistic with regards to how all of this will turn out. The seeming willingness of most people to go along with increased state restrictions and supervision does not augur well for what might follow the Covid crisis. Especially if all of this is going to be sold on the ongoing basis that it will all be for our own good.
Once a certain material and personal if attenuated security is guaranteed, then it would appear that most people will be happy to go along with whatever the guarantors seek in return by way of a diminution of personal freedoms. Which is why housing is the key issue here.
Security of tenure was the central demand of the Land League which overturned landlordism in Ireland in the 19th century. Security of a person’s home needs to be the central demand now.
Woodford Eviction in 1887
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Neither the vulture fund developers nor those who support moves towards majority or even complete state ownership of housing are interested in fostering the diverse ownership that leads to healthy communities. The state certainly does have a role to play, especially given the amount of land in public ownership. Perhaps a good starting point then would be to use that land for housing with the option where it is initially in local authority ownership for people to buy.
For those who reject both the extremes of libertarian capitalism, and state socialism, there is a pressing need to come up with a viable alternative on housing and other issues. We know what the two extremes are. Under laissez faire capitalism of the classical variety it led to squalid slums and degradation. In the western countries and others which subsequently adopted a modified free market, these have generally disappeared.
Under socialism, despite the state monopoly on land and construction and ownership through rent, every socialist state presided over chronic shortages, overcrowding and high rise squalor. Socialism pioneered the modern tenements now known as “co-living.” Even today, the island of Cuba with an entire land mass owned by the state has an admitted housing shortage of 600,000. Havana is like a sunny Gorbals circa 1910.
So let no one be under any illusion that the state on its own has the solution to the housing problem in Ireland. Indeed, the model of one and two bed apartments in “co living” high rise favoured by the investment funds is closer to what the reality was in the socialist states, than the left would like to admit. The preventing of a repeat of either housing disaster must be central to any proposals to address current problems.